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Battling climate change on the other side of Europe's Coal Curtain

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In Central and Eastern Europe, the fight against climate change is put on hold in favour of a political goal that seems to be more important for the moment:  keeping fees of household utilities low. Surveys show that people living in the area do not care about the changing climate as much as people living in Western Europe, while NGO's are saying that we may not have the Iron Curtain anymore, but now there is a Coal Curtain dividing the continent.

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By 2019, climate change has become a hot button issue of Europe; not only did temperatures break historic records everywhere, but it is now a central topic of European politics as well. The 2019 European Elections brought about the emergence of green parties, and even the complete carbon-neutrality of Europe's economy was on the agenda. But both of these phenomena have only served to highlight the divide running down the map of the continent as member states of the EU in the East seem to have entirely different ideas about climate change than their Western counterparts. In this article, we will introduce the peculiarities of the way the 'Eastern bloc,' specifically the Visegrád Four (V4) countries are handling this issue.

V4 is the name of the regional cooperation established in 1991 by four countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. V is for Visegrád, a town in the Danube Bend that served as a meeting place for kings of the region in the 14th century. The intention behind the creation of this group was to jointly represent and coordinate the interests of these states in terms of economy, diplomacy, and politics. The history of V4 countries ran somewhat parallel in the second half of the twentieth century, as following World War II, all happened to fall under the Soviet sphere of influence, and they all joined the European Union together in 2004. With all added up, the countries of this alliance would make up the fifth largest economy of the EU, and the 16th largest in the world.

Green breakthrough postponed

While the elections in May meant a breakthrough for green parties in Germany, and they also got stronger in the North and North-West of Europe, they performed less swimmingly in the Eastern and Southern parts of the continent. 

In Poland, it was SLD, the postcommunist party posing as a modern leftist-liberal political group that was taking up all the breathing room of any other potential green initiatives, but after 2005, the centre-right political forces (PO, PiS) started taking on the social and economic issues that had previously belonged to the centre-left. In the past 10-14 years, these political rearrangements prevented the greens from taking advantage of SLD's decline, as Edit Zgut, the guest lecturer of the For Europe Institute of the Warsaw University told Index. The Polish Green party exists as a part of the PO, the "Civil Coalition," but they cannot be measured in polls as an independent entity.

Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary had several green MEPs in the European Parliament, but since then, the dynamics of the opposition political playing field resulted in LMP, a party that initially labelled themselves as green and anti-globalist, not being able to gain a single mandate in 2019, and the most active Hungarian green MEP Benedek Jávor falling out of the European Parliament despite being the third on the list of the Hungarian Socialist Party.

Despite the decidedly green campaign of LMP that ran with the slogan of "Europe will either be green or will not be," LMP bombed at the elections, they received significantly fewer votes than at the previous European elections five years before. Domestic political analysts mostly attribute this to voters punishing LMP for their strategy at the 2018 general elections, where several allegations of collaboration with governing party Fidesz were made against them.

Central Europe does not sense climate change that much

Apart from the domestic political struggles, green parties of Eastern Europe also suffer from what surveys show, namely that people in the V4 countries are not as interested in the issue of climate change as they are in the Northern and Western member states of the EU.

Eurobarometer's 2019 survey shows that citizens of the EU think that climate change is the second most important issue after migration, even though at the last survey, it only ranked fifth. Hungary was the only V4 country where the share of people who think climate change is an important issue meets the EU average (22%), in Poland, that is only true about 17% of the people, but in Slovakia (14%) and the Czech Republic (13%) an even smaller portion of the population cares about the question.

What says even more is that the V4 countries do not even regard environmental, energetic, and climate questions to be that important not just in Europe, but in their own domestic politics either. Compared to the EU average (20%), these issues are held in lower regard in the Czech Republic (14% think these issues are important), Slovakia (13%), Hungary (10%), and Poland (also 10%). Members of V4 view healthcare and price levels as more pressing issues in their own countries.

This attitude is remarkable knowing that the V4 countries are amongst the areas most affected by air pollution; low air quality causes the early death of tens of thousands of people in the region. The situation is especially critical in Poland where 36 of Europe's 50 most polluted cities are located. According to Edit Zgut, there is a great divide in terms of climate awareness between Poland's rural and urban areas. Surveys show that

while denial of climate change is frequent in small towns, awareness-campaigns of civil organisations put measures to control air pollution on the agenda of the local and the central administrations,

as Edit Zgut told us.

Election victory by utility prices

A study conducted in 2019 by Cambridge University found that citizens of Central and Eastern European countries are aware of the importance of battling climate change, however, the focus is more on the immediate healthcare concerns raised by air pollution. The social pressure on governments is more towards increasing air quality than doing something about the changing climate.

The study also mentions that the production processes of these countries are not particularly energy-efficient:

"It takes nearly three times more energy to produce one unit of GDP in the Czech Republic than in Austria."

The high per capita energy demand coupled with the low incomes of the older generation places pressure on governments to keep utility prices low; household utility savings are a political cause of high national importance in these places, which does not exactly incentivise policymakers for modernising the energy sector.

For example, the Hungarian government's 'Wunderwaffe' at the 2014 general elections was the household utility price cut - this measure forced energy providers to lower their retail prices in several steps. The companies were also obliged to show the exact amount of money saved by the government for each household on every bill.

This price cut went on to be a central political topic in Hungary for the following years, and even to this day, it is an important talking point of Viktor Orbán's government who say that they will protect the lower prices even if they have to oppose Brussels for that. It was a successful political product as proportional to their incomes, Hungarians did indeed pay more for utilities than Western Europeans, and the country also got used to low energy prices before the end of communism.

Coal curtain instead of the iron one

Countries of Central and Eastern Europe went on a different path than older EU member states in energetics as well. A chart made by Hungarian NGO Energiaklub clearly shows that there is an imaginary "coal curtain" exactly where the Iron Curtain used to be; as of this May, almost all Western countries have an active deadline for phasing out coal, while most of the Eastern countries are yet to make a political decision about going coal-free.

The question of coal is the most critical in Poland, where 80% of the country's electricity production is from coal, covering around 50% of the country's total energy demand. The coal industry still provides a hundred thousand jobs for the Polish economy, and a great part of the large Polish coal companies is owned by the state, therefore a successful coal industry is a national interest for Poland, as Edit Zgut explained.

Domestic energy sources (including coal) are at the heart of Poland's energy policies that are mostly aimed at providing energy security, as historically, Poland sees dependence on Russian energy a threat to national security. Besides that, lawmakers think that CO2 emissions can be neutralised by reforestation, therefore reducing emissions is not amongst the chief objectives.

Coal also plays a large role in the electricity production of the Czech Republic (49% in 2015), and also, the country has vast reserves of coal and lignite, they export coal to their neighbours as well. The Czech Republic has the highest per capita CO2 emission levels, and they also use three times as much energy to produce a unit of GDP than Austria.

An alternative Visegrád group for renewables

When it comes to the share of energy from renewable sources, the V4 are amongst the worst-performing members of Europe; the renewables remain under 20% in the energy mix of all four countries, and that number goes even lower when it comes to electricity production. This is mostly due to decisionmakers of the region still thinking that the only way to produce electricity in a reliable manner is by using large power plants.

In these countries, politics often roll absurd bureaucratic obstacles in the path of developing renewable energy sources: The Hungarian government, for instance, has practically banned the construction of new wind farms, and the solar energy sector suffers diminishing subsidies and increasing taxes in the Czech Republic.

Speaking at a renewable energy conference held in Prague, Florian Maringer, the leader of the Austrian Federation of Renewable Energy said:

"Central European politicians often say that the potential of solar plants and wind farms is simply not enough. This is very reminiscent of an Austria from 25 years ago when we were called 'no-wind-country.' By now, we connect 400 MW of new wind capacity to the grid every year. This annual growth in wind capacity is pretty much equivalent to the total solar capacity established in the past twenty years by the three countries bordering Austria, the V4 without Poland."

Ada Ámon, a fellow at the Third Generation Environmentalism research centre says that the dominant public perception of renewable energy sources in the V4 countries is still that they are costly, unreliable, and inefficient. There is also a claim that switching to renewables would significantly increase household energy prices, and "the political stability of Central Europe would be lost in case household utility costs increased by 30-40%, as they did in Germany," as Chief of Staff Gergely Gulyás explained at one of his weekly press conferences in July.

Experts say that the national energetic and climate plans submitted by the governments of V4 countries reflect climate ambitions that aim rather low; the bravest promise from the region was to raise the share of renewables to 21% by 2030. In order to change this, renewable energy associations and research institutes based in the V4 countries and Austria have set up the 'Viságrád+ for Renewable Energy' platform this summer, and they hope this will be able to achieve more ambitious results than the newly elected European Commission.

But switching to renewables is indeed time-intensive and costly, and it can also have unexpected social and political consequences, especially in regions where most people make their living in the coal industry. It is important to note that while Germany had spent €800 million on research and development concerning energy efficiency and renewables, spending a sum that large would place a much more significant burden on the Eastern member states.

A veto from the East

This summer, the European Council had been preparing for an important declaration. Initiated by eight member states, the long-term climate strategy on the table included the EU's commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, with their economies not producing more emissions than what could be offset by the continent's natural environment.

Those who supported the 2050 net-zero goal thought it could have sent a strong message if,  right before the UN's Climate Action Summit in September,  one of the world's leading economies would have taken a stand by ambitious climate goals, but even more so, it would have provided the credibility for the EU necessary to call on other actors, for example, China, to adopt similarly brave and specific goals as well.

The deal, however, was ultimately blocked by Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Estonia, directing attention to the climate tensions drawing a divide between the Eastern and Western parts of the European Union. Both the Polish and the Hungarian prime ministers argued that decarbonisation would be too much of a burden on their countries' economies (and too much of a threat to low utility prices), while the  EU's budget is not entirely clear on how there would be sources financing the achievement of these goals. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis called the efforts against climate change "ecological hysteria," and asked why there has to be a decision now, 31  years ahead of time,  on what should happen in 2050.

Out of the countries participating in the veto, Hungary has the lowest coal demand, and on top of that, just days before the veto, one of Orbán's ministers publicly stated that the government's goal is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Government sources told us that Orbán ultimately blocked the deal in order to showcase the strong unity of the V4 countries to the new European Commission, and at the same time, to increase his negotiating power at the talks about the EU's 2021-2027 budget.

As we have reported in detail in our earlier piece, the Hungarian Prime Minister considers global action against climate change to mostly be a left-wing political cause conceived by Barack Obama to disadvantage Vladimir Putin. Climate change is a topic of little interest in Viktor Orbán's communication, as it cannot be leveraged to create partisan division; even if the Prime Minister is not entirely convinced personally that climate change is attributable to human activity, he has to employ the same rhetorics as the political left: "as the nature of this phenomenon seems to be global, the steps taken against it and the measures implemented to avert its consequences require global action as well."

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This article is the direct translation of the original published in Hungarian by Index.

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